Sunday, December 11, 2005

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy dies

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy dies

By Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 anti-Vietnam War presidential candidacy helped drive President Lyndon Johnson from office, died on Saturday in Washington, his son said.

McCarthy, 89, a Democrat during his years as a senator from Minnesota, had suffered from Parkinson's disease, fell ill on Friday night and died from complications on Saturday morning in a Georgetown retirement home, said his son, Michael McCarthy.

"He's obviously going to be remembered for his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his campaign against Johnson but I think he'd maybe prefer to be remembered for his work on the Civil Rights Act ... Medicare and Medicaid and environmental law," his son said.

"Another thing about him was that he was able to participate in some of the most contentious debates of his time ... and do it on the basis of ideas and policies and not on personalities. I think that was one of the reasons he had such appeal to the young."

McCarthy made his mark in the turbulent 1968 campaign as a Pied Piper of the anti-Vietnam War movement that drove fellow Democrat Johnson from office.

With only $4,000 in campaign funds and no support from top Democrats, McCarthy launched his bid to unseat an incumbent president from his own party because, as he said, "the administration seems to have set no limits to the price that it is willing to pay for a military victory" in Vietnam.

Johnson and his aides dismissed McCarthy as a dreamer. He was, after all, a bookish fellow who was considered an outsider in the cliquish Senate.


What the skeptics missed was that McCarthy had tapped into the energy of college students and other young people who were rising to protest the Vietnam War in growing numbers.

Young volunteers flocked to his camp. People dubbed him "Clean Gene" for the thousands of long-haired students who went to the barber, donned conventional clothes, swore off drugs and generally cleaned up their acts to serve his cause.

More than 10,000 such youngsters converged on New Hampshire in March 1968 for the first primary of that presidential season, going door to door with their vote-McCarthy message.

McCarthy lost to Johnson but the vote -- 49 percent for the incumbent and 42 percent for McCarthy -- was so close the media and political establishment interpreted it as a stunning defeat for Johnson.

McCarthy's candidacy was soon overshadowed when New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of the slain president, entered the race three days after the primary as an anti-war candidate. By the end of the month, Johnson announced he would not run.

After Johnson's decision not to seek re-election and Kennedy's assassination in June after his victory in the California primary, Vice President Hubert Humphrey went on to take the Democratic nomination that year. He ultimately lost the presidential race to Republican Richard Nixon.

McCarthy staged quixotic presidential campaigns in later years but his moment had passed.

"Eugene McCarthy was a man of compassion and a tremendous figure in the Democratic Party. He dedicated his life to public service and made an enormous difference for the people of Minnesota and the entire United States," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.

Although McCarthy often expressed annoyance that his run for president overshadowed other achievements -- Senate service, books of poetry, political commentary -- the 1968 campaign put him in the history books.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1949 and the first of two Senate terms in 1958. He left the Senate in 1970 and eventually moved to rural Virginia to write poetry and books on politics.

Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said McCarthy "was a passionate, articulate and intelligent public servant who spoke his mind and was part of the Minnesota populist tradition."

McCarthy is survived by his son, two daughters, a brother, a sister and six grandchildren, Michael McCarthy said.

A private burial is planned for Wednesday in Woodville, Virginia, where McCarthy lived for about 20 years.